NORTH OF HOPE: AN INTRODUCTION
The high school experiences of Frank Healy, my protagonist, were much like my own. Although I, unlike Frank, had both parents well into my fifties and I did not aspire to the priesthood, I, too, was an only child, and very shy of girls. I find this entry in my journal, dated January 1. 1987:
flesh out the tale, I will have to add scenes from my memories of Plainview [the
Minnesota town where I grew up], such as Frank candling eggs [as I used to do in
my father’s grocery store], Frank at his piano lesson, Frank in the
cemetery at a military funeral, and Frank serving Mass for his old pastor [as I
did, year after year, for old Father O’Connor].”
Alice Downie moves to town, [I later changed her name to Libby Girard] Frank
falls immediately in love with her.” The
girl in my life was named Mary, and I too was devastated when, in the middle of
our senior year, she told me she was quitting school to marry her high school
have been told by readers that in order to write North of Hope, surely I
must have been a priest or at least studied in a seminary. But the fact is
that I never seriously considered the priesthood as a vocation--except perhaps
for one day toward the end of my senior year in high school. It was the
day all of us Catholics were excused from school to attend a retreat at our
parish church. The visiting retreat master turned out to be a very
personable and articulate young man who was easy to admire and I imagined myself
a priest like him. The retreat ended with Mass, which I served for the priest,
and later, in the sacristy as we hung up our vestments, he asked me if I was a
senior. I said yes. He said I must always say “Yes, Father.”
Then he asked me if I’d planned yet where I’d go to college. I said no,
and he slapped me hard across face because I didn’t say, “No, Father.” There
ended my short-lived priestly intentions.
to the question, “How do you, if not a priest, know so much about Frank
Healy’s profession?” is simply that all my life I’ve been a
priest-watcher. Priests interest me because they straddle two worlds.
Religious ministry is the only line of work I know of where the person must
keep one foot in this life and the other in the next.
was a difficult book to write. It was my only book that necessitated a
wall chart to keep track of the events of the plot. Whereas most
books take me two years to write, this one took me three. Luckily I had a
very good editor at Ballantine as I worked through it. His name was
Bob Wyatt, and I have since regrettably fallen out of touch with him. I
recall telephoning him one day as I worked on Libby’s suicide attempt and
asking, “Can you have a love story where the lovers don’t go to bed
together?” There was a long pause and then he said, “I don’t
know,” which I considered the perfect answer, because it meant that I was free
to go ahead and try it.
When the book finally appeared in the
fall of 1990, the reviews and reader reaction were almost entirely positive.
Richard Russo, in the New York Times Book Review said, “Perhaps it will
not be surprising if Hassler’s brooding and meditative new novel makes him the
household name he deserves to be.” The National Catholic Reporter said
the novel “is not about religious repression but the possibility of
redemption…. The book is a masterpiece.”
One of the first reactions from general readers came by letter from a priest serving a small parish far north in the Yukon. He said that he, like Father Frank Healy, had been discouraged and suffering from burnout--or his “big leak” as Father Healy called it-- and the book had helped him recover. That letter, and others like it that followed, made the effort seem well worthwhile.
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